Snowshoeing Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, winter

Winter snowshoeing in Wrangell St. Elias national Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

“Oh, break up is early”, they said. “Spring’s here!” they cried. “Summer’s on the way”, they projected. Well, it was about 15 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and that didn’t factor in the wind chill. Winds in the vicinity of, oh, I dunno, say around 200mph, blowing straight out from under the polar ice cap, I’m led to believe. And here’s me trying to snowshoe across one of the great lakes to take some pictures!

Well, fool me once, for about 5 minutes, but I’m not THAT stupid. Uh uh, no sir, not me. This little vegemite turned tail, and scampered back to the veritable safety (i.e., warm, heated and still running) of my van, turned that baby around and beared to’ard the ole cabin. Full steam ahead. (NB: given the road conditions, and the wildly lunging, out of control nature of said van in such conditions, ‘full steam’ consisted of about 15mph – or, 185mph slower than the aforementioned wind).

It’s been a cloudy, snowy, nasty last few days. The inside of the Shaq has been getting kinda funky, with me kicking about it with little else to do. I’ve gone for a hike each day, for an hour or 2, always carrying the camera gear ‘just in case’. Which brings me to another point: I’m going out of my head with camera gear, always trying to have the specific gear I may need ‘just in case’ – ya know, I used to play in a band with a singer named ‘Justin Case’ – he always bought a 2nd mic to the gig as a backup, ‘just in case’ – we called it ‘Justin Case’s Just-In-Case’, and the case he carried it in was ‘Justin Case’s Just-In-Case Case’ – true story). Anyway, everytime I head outside I think, I better bring my camera and stuff along, ya never know what I’ll see – which is only partially true, because I do know I’ll see spruce trees, snow and dead underbrush, and quite likely the tail end of a snowshoe hare or 5 – but one never knows what ELSE one might see. So I shoulder my backpack. That pack includes my:

D2x camera body
12-24mm lens (now busted, and soon to be heading for a repair)
28-70mm lens
70-200mm lens
500mm lens
1.4 x teleconverter.
GND filters
cable release
gitzo 1325 tripod and Kirk BH1 ballhead
extra camera battery
sensor cleaning brush
Canon 500d closeup diopter

plus relevant outdoor gear, such as gloves, a headlamp, matches, fleece hat, jacket, etc. It makes going for a walk somewhat cumbersome. It makes going for a ski something to behold. Which brings me to ANOTHER point: Why do they call it ‘skiiing’ and not ‘falling down’? I mean, the choice of footwear or the time of year ought not require the activity garner a complete new moniker. Falling down is always falling down. The fact that I might be wearing treacherous, greasy, six foot long stabbers on my feet doesn’t mean it’s no longer ‘falling down’. Speaking of which, I might well be the first and only person to ever actually poke myself in the belly with the tips of both skis at once, whilst traversing a relatively flat and well-groomed terrain. Remarkably, that particular feat didn’t involve falling down, and I stayed upright, in a roundabout sorta way, for the next minute or so – at least long enough to claim that when I DID next fall down, it was a function of an entirely separate, though equally spectacular, move.

I’ve learned a lot about this ‘skiing/falling down’ thing this winter though.

*the skis are not made fitted for a particular foot, like right and left shoes. Instead they are made for different directions. One ski will always want to go one direction and the remaining ski will go in the other direction. Decide which direction is best, i.e., safer, for you to go, and put most of your weight, hope and prayers on that ski.
* the curled up ends of the skis go towards the front. They’re for ‘aiming’.
* when you put the skis on, stay seated until both skis are secure on your feet, grab a nearby post, building, etc, and gently ease yourself into skiing position.
* the best skiing position is your arms stretched out in front to break your fall and protect your face, your mouth closed and your knees bent – bent knees mean your head and face have a shorter distance to fall before the ground smashes into them.
* the ski poles are not for propulsion, but helpful, if not requisite, to avoid having the ground smash into your skull.
* if there’s a spruce tree within a 200 yard radius of you, stop, remove the skis from your feet, and walk safely out of the danger zone.
* when you ski, and particularly when you ski down hill, do not lean backwards because you think it might look cool. (Well, this is redundant: of course you’ll be skiing down hill. If there is an ascent in front of you, lean on your other ski (the one that wants to go in the opposite direction), turn around, and go another way. There is no way to make skis go up hill while they remain on your feet.)
* carry duct tape. When/if you fall, if anyone is around to witness the event, curse, pick yourself up, closely examine one of your skis, curse again, louder, and then wrap a stretch of duct tape around the ski, shaking your head. The person will unequivocally believe your ski was broken and this to be the cause of your fall. This trick doesn’t work more than 2 or 3 times on any particular person. After that, you may have to actually break the ski, shredded remnants of duct tape hanging from it’s length proving the ski was troublesome all along.
* do not try to remain standing the entire time you’re out skiing. You simply prolong the inevitable, and more likely injure yourself. Simply wear some padded clothing, surrender to the moment, put your pride and body in the grace of Gaia, and close your eyes as you feel the ground lunging toward your face.
* skiing will tire you out – particularly your upper body, from repeatedly lifting yourself out of the snow, and your neck from looking around to see if there were any witnesses.

So, so much for skiing. Back to my story. With the Shaq needing some ‘alone’ time, I headed out to go take some pictures. As I went to bed last night I saw the clouds starting to break up, and I planned on getting out for some early morning photography. So, at 4:30am I get up, throw on some fleece layers, and step outside to see if the sky might be clear. The problem with the Alaskan early morning sky is it will be the same light grey/blue color an hour before dawn whether it’s cloudy or clear. No stars, because the sun will be close enough to the horizon that the stars aren’t visible. So it’s simply guesswork, at best. In the far distance, right by the western horizon, I could see the faint glow of a disappearing moon, so I figured it would be nice. Not a breath of air stirred.

I start the van, return to the Shaq and grab my camera gear, dress in my stylish new red jacket ($30.00, at the Outdoor Clothing Gear store on Northern Lights, in Anchorage), and some absolutely killin’ Marmot Liquid Steel pants, my wool hat, grab some gloves, boots and showshoes, and off we go.

As I approached this place, I eased up and waited for the sun to poke it’s bleary eye above the eastern horizon. Clouds were scatted around, and there was some nice color in the eastern sky, but the lay of the land didn’t afford me anything in the way of a photo – nice scouting and planning ahead, Carl! So then those same clouds block the sun from hitting this peak I wanted to shoot. Off to the south of me, the Hanagita Hills looked like they were on fire, having dined on God’s favorite hot Sauce or something. Like the most amazing aurora borealis show was being projected on their snow-covered walls. I, of course, was staring at this scene through a maze of broken and scraggly boreal forest of mostly white spruce and dead paper birch trees. Nothing to shoot from where I was.

So I waited, listening to Marley on the iPod, digging the scene, but mostly enjoying the heat from my van. Finally, the sun pops it’s snickering ugly head up above the distant ridge and starts to light up the scene I’d hope to shoot. So I stepped outside the van.

“&#%$&$*#(@)#*@&@)!_@#^#*@(@)!(!&&#*$^@%@!*!!!!!!!!!!!” (My mum reads this, I think, so I have to write some things in code. Shout out to the mother, ‘Hey Mum, love ya!’)

It was pretty cold, and a really, really, really cold wind was blowing along. It might have even been a little below absolute zero, I couldn’t say because I was swearing too much.

I stepped back inside the van.

Marley was still playing, which reaffirmed that decision for me.

I decided I’d better “man up” a little, and take some photos. So I stepped back outside, took 2 photos, and am back at the Shaq enjoying a nice warm fire, my down booties, a nice warm fire, my finger tips, a nice warm fire, some coffee, a nice warm fire, a pleasant view out the window, and also a nice warm fire.

Spring ain’t here, and break up isn’t early, and summer is not on the way folks.



PS – most of the above article is fiction.

11 thoughts on “Snowshoeing Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, winter

  1. Minna

    Thanks for the duct tape tip! So far I’ve just tried to sheepishly disappear out of the scene after every fall, but now I can bow out graciously because my poor balance had nothing to do with the fall – clearly the skis are to blame. Is there anything at all that duct tape won’t fix? 😉

  2. Ron Niebrugge

    Carl buddy, skies are meant to be decorations for the outside of your cabin, or above your fireplace. I can’t believe you actually attached those things to the bottom of your feet and tried to move!

    Funny stuff!

    Hey, you can direct traffic with that jacket. 🙂 – and you made fun of my shorts!

    Maybe this is the year there won’t be a summer.



  3. Ron Niebrugge

    Skis are meant for decorations as well, along with skies, either one. Since I can’t edit my comment, I thought I would make fun of myself before anyone else could!

  4. Mark

    See, you don’t even have any room for an extra lens like a 200-400 – so quit yer whinin. 😉 I have the same debates on what to take a long, especially the 200-400 vs. 500 decision when hiking. Keeping one in the car ‘just in case’ is always an option I suppose.

    Used to ski a bit, finally realized if I was really meant to do this, I should have evolved with even longer feet.

  5. Carl Donohue

    Hey Musa

    The jacket is awesome, I know.

    Hey Minna,

    No, duct-tape works for all times and all situations. I’m glad the tip helped out.

    Hey Ron,

    Yeah, I kinda figured that out later. A little inside information froma long time (ex??) Alaskan might have been handy though.

    I did make fun of your shorts .. my jacket is solely for the purpose of photos .. I’d never wear something that loud otherwise.

    There better be a summer.

    It’s about 50degrees today!

    Hey Mark,

    Actually, I do have room for that 200-400mm .. i could leave the 500mm out of the pack .. do you need the shipping address? 🙂



  6. Beth Lunsford

    Well, that is an awesome jacket. But I can’t stop laughing about the ski tips!!! Try to stay warm!!

  7. Pete Zwiers

    Hey Carl,

    Oh man, winter rookie mistake … thinking you can ski because you saw a video once. You gotta protect those knees and stick with the snowshoes! 🙂 Seriously though, that was a very funny read.

    That camera bag description hurts my back just thinking about it. You should just leave the 500mm at home, then you’ll start seeing all kinds of great wildlife … Murphy’s law and all that.

    Hey, is that 12-24mm lens a Sigma? If so, how do you like it?

    Keeping chanting to the weather gods … ‘spring is here, spring is here, spring is here’. At least it will feel warmer. If it’s any consolation … it’s damn cold & windy here also (and it’s just starting to snow as I look outside – yay!).

    – Pete

  8. Carl Donohue

    Hey Pete

    Yeah, total rookie. But, and what’s most important, is that I looked good the whole time.

    Well, I didn’t forget the 500mm, but I did see some swans yesterday. I was glad I didn’t take your advice. 🙂

    I have the 12-24mm Tokina lens .. very nice lens, and really well built .. i can’t understand what’s wrong with it, the zoom won’t twist .. I thought it might’ve been frozen one night I left the rig out to shoot star trails for a few hours, but even warmed up it won’t twist. that’s the first issue I’ve had with it. I’ll buy another if it’s busted.

    Spring’s here .. it’s 50-something today .. and WAY hazy. That’ll be my pop quiz question for today, I think.

    Thanks for dropping by .. hope you get some nice wather soon enough.



  9. Richard Wong

    That’s funny Carl. I liked your above quote, “that I looked good the whole time.” That is the same reasoning I’ve used to convince myself to not own hiking poles. :-p

  10. Carl Donohue

    Hey Richard

    Thanks for the post. Yeah, hiking poles can get a little geeky – they do make a difference though. I find a compromise is best, and just use 1 when I’m hiking, instead of the ‘Hey, look, I bought these at REI, where the beautiful people shop’ look that 2 poles gives. 🙂



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